• Reaping the benefits of nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry
Industry issue:

Reaping the benefits of nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry

23 May 2019

“Smart” ferromagnetic nanoparticles, nanosensors and nanodust are just some of “nano” technologies that are making a huge difference in the oil and gas sector. Companies that are able to develop and harness nanotechnology, and make the most of the related subsidies and R&D tax breaks, are opening up to a big competitive advantage. In this article, we review how nanotechnology is already being used in exploration, drilling and recovery and the incentives available for developing it.

In the brainchild of physicist Richard Feynman, nanotechnology is about building materials and devices on the scale of atoms and molecules – the “nanoscale”. A nanoparticle is no bigger than 100 nanometres. To put this in perspective, a human hair is around 80,000 to 100,000 nanometres wide.

So why does this matter for oil and gas?

Applying nanotechnology creates huge opportunities for more efficient and effective oil and gas production. With recent innovations, nanoparticles, nanosensors and nanorobots could become an integral part of the oil and gas recovery process, potentially improving every stage, from searching, drilling, production/processing through to transport and subsequent refining.

Nanotechnology has huge potential because materials’ properties (magnetic, electrical, thermal and optical) have unique characteristics at these scales. For example, nanoparticles are able to function under the high temperatures and pressures and unknown chemical environments. Therefore, they can be used as nanosensors in imaging techniques during oil reservoir exploration. Nano-sensors sent through the wellbore and then recovered as “nanodust” with extracted oil can provide data on the reservoir’s characteristics and the nature of the fluid flow.

Even with respect to fracking, nanocomputerised tomography (an X-ray based imaging technique) can be used to create images of shales and pore structures. Nanocharacterisation and nanosensing technologies can also be used to obtain the mineral composition and petrophysical properties of formations.

Nanoparticles can also change the viscosity of drilling muds – addressing the problem of thick drilling mud increasing the force required for extraction. During hydraulic fracking, nanoparticles can help to increase the viscosity of the fracking fluid and so improve its rock-fracturing ability.

In oil recovery, nanoparticles can reduce oil viscosity and alter wettability to improve oil mobility and hence recoverability. Magnetic nanoparticles such ferromagnetic or “smart” nanofluids can be used as crude oil tracers in estimating residual oil saturation. Research shows that reducing oil viscosity using magnetic nanoparticles can improve oil recovery.

Nanoparticles have also shown promising performance in scale inhibition in oil recovery equipment and the recovery of hydrates. In addition, nanostructured materials can be used for the transport of compressed natural gas, while nanocoatings and nanomembranes can be used in the refining stages to separate gas streams, remove impurities and suspend oil droplets.

It cannot be disputed that nanotechnology will play a major role in oil and gas sector. Further research will only refine the technology, make it more accessible and identify new applications. Nanotechnology may focus on small things, but the global nanotechnology industry is large and growing, anticipated to be worth US$75.8bn by 2020. Governments have recognised its potential, with the UK Government promoting nanotechnology research through the National Graphene Institute, based at the University of Manchester. It has also set up the Nanotechnology Strategy Forum to support the development of nanotechnology industries in the UK. In addition, awareness and knowledge across the UK is being increased through the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network.

Funding and tax incentives for investing in nanotech

Our Innovation & Technology Group, which includes PhD-qualified consultants in the fields of nanotechnology, chemical engineering and petrochemical engineering, is here to help you make the most of the funding and reliefs available. We have a proven track record in both successful grant applications and R&D tax relief claims for our clients.

The UK Government provides several sources of funding for nanotechnology research. UK Research and Innovation’s emerging and enabling technology programme supports innovative nanotechnology application projects. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund has committed £20m in pioneer funding for quantum technologies including nanotechnology.

HMRC’s R&D tax relief scheme also provides valuable funding for innovative activity. R&D relief generates a potentially substantial cash boost and a real incentive for undertaking further innovation. However, applying for grants and claiming R&D tax relief is a time-consuming and complex process. With our expertise and experience, we can help you prepare a robust claim, helping you maximise the benefit, with a flexible process tailored specifically for your company.

Please get in touch with us to discuss your plans with regard to innovation in oil and gas.

With thanks to Sharli Zarkar for her contribution to the article.